THE time has come for the United States to do something bold and innovative regarding the standoff in Korea, something that will finally get North Korea's attention. In short, it's time to do ... nothing.
This means no more direct dialogue with the North. No more offers of rewards to get Pyongyang to do what it had pledged to do. No more cancellations of military exercises or of deployments of defensive missile systems that pose no threat (other than to incoming missiles).
It also means no sanctions, threats, or efforts to militarily preempt or eliminate North Korea's suspected nuclear program.
If North Korea is determined to develop nuclear weapons at any cost, then efforts to prevent this, short of a military invasion, will fail. If they are bluffing or are trying to play the only card they have - the nuclear option - it's time to call their hand.
I have no clues about what is behind North Korea's actions (and am suspicious of anyone who claims to). What is clear is that Pyongyang faces a lose-lose situation: It can attempt to remain a hermit kingdom and collapse of its own weight, as forecasts suggest. Or it can attempt to save its economy by gradually opening its society, thus risking the fate of the East European communist systems and leaders.
In either case, Pyongyang is compelled to explain to an increasingly deprived people that continued suffering is necessary despite the absence of any legitimate threat. Whatever else the current crisis does or does not accomplish, it provides the Pyongyang regime with patriotic justification for asking its people to make more sacrifices. Stepping back from the crisis stops handing North Korea this excuse.
Sanctions (gradual or otherwise) will likely prove counter-productive for several reasons. First, they create yet another source of tension between the US and both China and Japan, relationships that need fewer not more points of contention. Second is the more familiar argument that sanctions won't work, especially if the PRC and Japan fail to vigorously enforce them. More important is the possibility that, international precedents notwithstanding, sanctions in this instance might actually work.
North Korea is already on the brink of economic collapse. What happens if sanctions succeed in driving it over the edge? One of the two most likely outcomes is implosion - an internal collapse, possibly to include anarchy, civil war, and the need for someone (South Korea, the US?) to come in, restore order, and bail out the North. The other is explosion - a desperate military thrust south toward Seoul, a move that would be destined to fail but would cause untold death and destruction before it was over.
This is a lose-lose situation for North Korea, the US, and all of Northeast Asia.
If all that is desired is for North Korea to gradually feel enough pressure to come to the conclusion that an opening to the West is the only way out, then a return to a policy of containment and isolation seems more effective than the current brinkmanship.
But, you may ask, how do you deal with North Korea's threat to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or its recent decision to withdraw its International Atomic Energy Agency membership (two interrelated events, since NPT signatories agree to accept IAEA safeguards)? The answer is: you don't. In fact, North Korea should be expelled if it fails to follow through on its threat to withdraw. North Korea's leaving the NPT is not going to cause the international agreement to collapse. Allowing Pyongyang to stay in and openly flout its rules and international norms could. Instead of arguing over sanctions, the United Nations Security Council should make it clear to North Korea that continued refusal to cooperate with the IAEA means continued isolation and that any attempt to test, deploy, or export nuclear weapons would result in expulsion from the UN. It also needs to reinforce President Clinton's message that any use of such weapons would result in North Korea's destruction.
There is no reason China or other sanction opponents would not go along with such an initiative. They could also be more easily convinced to privately increase pressure on Pyongyang once the spotlight is turned off. This action denies Pyongyang the limelight and leverage it desperately seeks, and serves notice that North Korea can expect nothing until it follows international standards. It also avoids idle threats that perpetuate an atmosphere of crisis. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.